What does “transgender” mean?
The term “transgender” has no universally agreed upon definition but most academics define it to mean “anyone who has a gender different from the gender they were assigned at birth”. For example, a trans girl might have been thought to be a “boy” at birth but her gender is actually that of a girl.
There is debate within the trans community about how broad the trans umbrella is. Some want to include gender-nonconforming people, crossdressers, drag queens/kings and basically anyone who does not ascribe to stereotypical gender stereotypes in their expression. Other trans people want to restrict the term “transgender” specifically to those who have dysphoria about their body and seek out medical/surgical treatment. I write more about whether dysphoria is necessary for being trans here.
But despite there not being consensus on how broad the umbrella is, the academic definition of “different gender than gender assigned at birth” works for almost all instances. Notice how this definition does not imply, e.g., a trans man was “born a girl”. It was a false assignment based on a preliminary examination of superficial morphological features. With that said, I have written about whether gender identity is solidified during a “critical window” at ~5 years old like many theorists speculate or whether gender identity can change over a lifespan.
What is the difference between sex and gender?
“Sex” usually refers to biological/physiological characteristics of the body (“male” vs “female” vs “intersex”, etc.) whereas gender typically refers to a broader social-cultural phenomena involving expectations about social role, behavior, expression, power dynamics, processes of identification, public spaces (e.g. the “women’s bathroom”), signs, markers, and other normative significations of gendered difference.But “sex” is also ambiguous between multiple different sex concepts.
Harry Benjamin, critical to the history of trans healthcare, famously wrote:
“Here are some of the kinds of sex I have in mind: chromosomal, genetic, anatomical, legal, gonadal, germinal, endocrine (hormonal), psychological and also the social sex, usually based on the sex of rearing.” (1966, The Transsexual Phenomenon)
All these different sex concepts can vary independently in any given individual.
Some gender theorists, however, have argued that the sex/gender distinction breaks down and they are too intermingled to be conceptually disentangled. I have written about the problems with the sex/gender distinction before.
What is the difference between “transgender” and “transsexual”?
When the term “transgender” was first coined it was defined in contrast to “transsexual”. “Transsexual” was a more limited term, specifically referring only to those trans people who seek out medical assistance via hormones, surgery, etc.
“Transsexualism” was coined in the late 1940s and early 1950s by doctors David O. Cauldwell (a psychiatrist) and Harry Benjamin (endocrinologist). In the 1960s, “most roads let to Benjamin” (How Sex Changed, Joanne Meyerowitz, p. 133). He treated thousands of trans patients and defined the norms through which trans people spoke to their therapists and doctors, essentially creating the script of the modern gatekeeping system.
“Transgender” was originally meant to be more encompassing, including transvestites (aka “crossdressers”), gender benders, and anyone else who doesn’t fit neatly into the gender binary.
Many people feel that “transsexual” is offensive and reductionist, and perhaps it is outdated sociologically, but a good number of trans people strongly identify with the term and so I would caution anyone against making universal statements about whether the term should or shouldn’t be used.
But nowaways, “transgender” is the preferred term of choice for most trans people, often shorted to “trans”.
What does “cisgender” mean?
The term “cisgender” comes from the Latin prefix “cis”, meaning “on this side of”, which is the opposite of “trans”, meaning “across from” or “on the other side of”.
Basically, if you are cisgender you are not trans i.e. you identify as the gender you were assigned at birth. For example, a cis man is a man that was identified as a boy at birth, raised as a boy, and feels totally comfortable with his manhood to the point where he might not have even questioned it nor formed an explicit identity as a man, his identity would be akin to a fish not noticing the water surrounding it: it’s just an omnipresent facet of his reality.
But many cis men do think about their manhood and masculinity and make conscious efforts to solidify that identity through culturally sanctioned rituals. Moreover, many cultures have explicit rites of passage that mark the entrance into the “adult” gender of manhood.
Furthermore, the question can be complicated because the line is fuzzy: “comfort” with your assigned gender comes in degrees and some cis people might be uncomfortable with a lot of aspects of their gender role but maybe still like their body or maybe have questioned their gender a bit but still feel mostly comfortable with their assigned gender. It can get complicated. Needless to say the cis vs. trans distinction is not super sharp because gender stuff is a complex and messy.
How is sexual orientation different from gender identity?
Sexual orientation refers to who you are attracted to. Gender identity refers to your identification/comfort with a gender such as “man” or “woman”. These two things can vary independently.
For example, a trans woman might identify as a woman but be attracted to other women (lesbian). Or a trans man might identify as a man but be attracted to more than one gender (bisexual/pansexual).
Many people falsely assume that, e.g., trans women are just “really gay” men and thus all “true trans women” are attracted to men. But about a third of trans women are only interested in other women. The rest is split between those attracted to men and those attracted to more than one gender.
Furthermore, many trans people are on the asexual/aromantic spectrum. Asexual typically means having a persistent lack of sexual attraction towards any gender. And this is different from to question of romance e.g. someone might be interested in sex with men but only wants romantic relationships with women. Aromantic would be someone who doesn’t experience any romantic attraction.
And there are many more sub-categories and distinctions to be made here. For resources on asexuality, see:
Fantastic resource on asexuality
Names and Pronouns: how do I use them?
Some general guidelines are:
- Always use the name and pronouns that are explicitly requested. If you know someone uses she/her pronouns, then use them. If you know someone uses, they/them pronouns, use them, even if you know you’ll mess up frequently or if it feels “weird”.
- When referring to the past, still use currently preferred pronouns. For example, if talking about a trans woman named Samantha, you might say “Before Samanatha transitioned, back in high school, she used to be on the men’s track team.”
- If you’re not sure of someone’s pronouns, find a way to gently ask e.g. “Hey, do you mind if I ask, what are your pronouns? Oh, awesome, thank you! I didn’t want to assume.” If you can’t ask, then use gender neutral pronouns when possible.
- Often we just assume people’s pronouns based on stereotypes i.e. if someone “looks” like a man they must be a man. But challenge yourself on this because it’s not always true. Avoid honorics like “sir” or “ma’am” unless absolutely necessary.
- If you mess up on someone’s pronouns, don’t make a big deal about it. Correct yourself without fanfare and move on. Don’t pause and comment or say “sorry”. Just correctly yourself and proceed with what you were going to say.
What is the difference between gender identity and gender expression?
Gender identity refers to how you identify (“man”, “woman”, or something else) and gender expression refers to how you express your gender through clothes, hairstyle, accessories, mannerisms, makeup, etc.
Although the terms “femme” and “masc” have their origins in the lesbian community, some people now use them to describe positions within the space of the feminine/masculine spectrum of gender expression:
What is “genderqueer” and “nonbinary”?
Nonbinary means anyone who identifies outside the traditional man/woman binary. For example, someone might:
- Identify as neither man nor woman
- Identify as both a man and a woman
- Identify outside the spectrum entirely
- Identify as different genders at different times (genderfluid)
- Identify as lacking all gendered identification characteristics (“agender”)
- Identify their gender through the perspective of their race identity (“My gender is black”)
- Identify as having a queer/nonnormative gender that escapes normal categories (“genderqueer”)
All these definitions are framed in terms of identity-language, but many trans people prefer to talk about just their genders e.g. a trans woman doesn’t “identify” as a woman she is a woman. So, with nonbinary, instead of “identify as neither man nor woman” we could say “their gender is neither that of a man or a woman”.
But personally, I think that if trans people have a gender identity than on the same grounds so do cis people-the difference is that cis people identify with the gender that was given to them at birth. But both cis people and trans people have the same basic cognitive architecture involved in processing information related to sex and gender; they just arrive at much different conclusions.
And here, “identify” doesn’t necessarily have to mean a conscious process (although I think some aspects of identity are formed at the conscious level) – it can refer to unconscious processing about both our sexed bodies and the norms/rules/systems of gender that forms the basis upon which we come to understand ourselves in gendered terms.
Many nonbinary people think of themselves as being a “sub-category” of trans, but some don’t: they see their nonbinary identity as not being reducible to typical categories of transness.
For more information on nonbinary identities, see:
Further resources about nonbinary people
What is gender dysphoria?
Gender dysphoria is the feeling of deep discomfort with aspects of your assigned gender. Often this focuses on body parts: for example, a trans woman might hate her penis and wish for a vagina, a trans man might hate his breasts and wish for a flat chest. This can apply to almost any body part that is sexually dimorphic: height, size, muscularity, facial hair, hair, handsize, adam’s apple, voice, feet size, ribcage, shoulders, vascularity, facial shape, browbridge, jawline, etc., etc.
But gender dysphoria can also apply to social phenomena: feeling discomfort with how you are perceived by society, your social role, which pronouns people use for you, how you are included in different gendered spaces, and the normative enforcement of gendered expression, etc.
For example, someone can feel dysphoria for not being able to express themselves and then later come to feel dysphoria about their body. Or someone’s dysphoria might focus exclusively on their body and not on gender expression. Or someone could be focused more on the dysphoria surrounding restrictions in gender expression and very little if any bodily dysphoria (though there is debate about this).
Is being transgender a mental disorder?
This is a complicated question. We can distinguish between gender dysphoria as a debilitating (but treatable) condition vs the mere fact of identifying as a different gender than your assigned gender (being trans). Arguably, being trans in and of itself is not pathological but if your dysphoria is bad enough it can lead to anxiety, depression, dysfunction, suicidal thoughts, etc., etc. For more on this, see this post I wrote on the so-called “truscum” debate.
Do all transgender people want surgery?
Simply put: no. Many do. But not all. Some only want some of the surgeries but not others. Some are happy with just hormones. Some actually don’t want any hormones or surgery. Some cannot have surgery or take HRT because of medical conditions but of course they’re still trans. Some cannot afford it. Some would get it if they could press a magic button but don’t want to go through the ordeal of major, risky surgery.
What is the difference between “transgender” and “intersex?”
This is a complicated question. Typically intersex refers to a condition where one has sexual characteristics that don’t fit typical definitions of male and female. For example, an otherwise female-appearing person who has a vagina but also male gonad inside of her.
It’s complicated because some trans people have argued that being trans is a kind of neurological intersex condition where there is a mismatch between the sex of their brain and their body. But other theorists argue that the concept of brain sex is sketchy.
Traditionally, intersex was distinguished from being trans in terms of it being a condition of the soma (body) whereas being trans was a psychiatric (mental) condition. But this assumes a mind/body dualism that is problematic.
How is being gender non-conforming different from being transgender?
Gender non-conforming (GNC) means that you have a gender expression that differs from the norms of society e.g. a man who wears makeup, or a woman who shaves her head. Drag queens are good examples of GNC men (although some drag queens do identify as trans or nonbinary).
Arguably, there must be a distinction between being trans and being GNC because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to make sense of a GNC cis woman. So therefore, GNC people cannot be part of the trans umbrella otherwise we wouldn’t be able to have a category of a butch cis woman.
What does medical transition involve?
Medical transition can involve a lot of things.
For trans-masculine folks medical transition can involve:
- Testosterone therapy
- Top surgery to remove breasts
- Bottom surgery can often be broken into two broad categories:
- Metoidioplasty: creates a penis from the enlarged clitoral growth of T-therapy
- Phalloplasty: creates a penis from skin tissue.
For trans-feminine folks medical transition can involve:
- Blocking testosterone
- Estrogen therapy
- Bottom surgery can involve:
- Orchiectomy: removal of testes
- Vaginoplasty: inverting the penis to create a vagina
- Facial feminization surgery
- Vocal feminization surgery
- Vocal therapy
- Breast augmentation
What are the causes of being trans?
This is still a fairly new field of empirical research. Being trans cannot as of yet be diagnosed like some medical pathologies such as cancer or the flu using empirical tools of measurements. There is some preliminary evidence of correlating biological factors but causation is incredibly hard to conclusively establish in humans for complex traits like being trans. So, in a nutshell, no one really knows the true cause(s) of being trans. Furthermore, trans people are a highly varied population and there might be multiple, overlapping, causes that interact strongly with the environmental context making the extrapolation of causality to single biological factors very complicated.
For a summary of some of the research on the biology of trans identities, see:
Harvard team summarizes evidence on biological foundations of gender
For a literature review of the biological foundations of trans identity, see:
Saraswat, A., Weinand, J., & Safer, J. (2015). Evidence supporting the biologic nature of gender identity. Endocrine Practice, 21(2), 199-204.
Is being transgender a modern fad?
No. Trans people have always been a part of human history.
Sex/gender expression was much more varied in some ancient cultures and traditions.
Arguably the notion of a gender binary where there are only two genders/sexes and two corresponding gender roles is a historical construct. Other societies have historically recognized a polymorphous number of gender/gender roles not limited to two dimorphic biological categories (male vs. female).
A white man, describing the Crow Nation of North America, observed:
“Strange country this, where males assume the dress and perform the duties of females, while women turn men and mate with their own sex!” (quoted in Trans Warriors, Leslie Feinberg, p. 22)
Writing in 1724, French missionary Joseph Francois Lafitau observed of Two-Spirit people that they were revered:
“They believe they are honored…they participate in all religious ceremonies, and this profession of an extraordinary life causes them to be regarded as people of a higher order” (Trans Warrior, p. 23)
Hijra in India are India’s social category for trans feminine individuals who have long played an important social function in their society, presiding over many different important social events and making their living this way. Young hijra are brought into the fold by elders in the community and taught how to perform the social rituals.
American journalists reported on “sex changes” as early as the 1930s.
In the 1800s the concept of “inversion” was used to lump together all kinds of gender and sex variance. If you were male but “inverted” to show the traits of a female then you were considered mentally deviant. The problem with “inversion” theories from a modern perspective is they conflated sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
In summary, it’s clear that gender diverse people have always existed.
Do transgender people face discrimination?
Yes. Trans people face discrimination in many areas of life including:
- bullying at schools
- discrimination at work (not being hired, being fired after transition, harassment)
- housing discrimination, denied access to shelter, resources
- discrimination stemming from not having proper governmental ID matching sex & gender
- discrimination in healthcare getting access to medical care, both for transition purposes and just general healthcare
- targeted by law enforcement (especially for being black and trans and femme)
- harassment on the street, from strangers, friends, or family
- stares, laughter, ridicule, hatred and trolling on the internet, death threats
For more information, see:
Wikipedia page on Transgender Equality
As an ally, how can I be supportive of transgender people?
Work on your own transphobia. Do you have a hard time seeing non-passing trans women as women? Ask yourself why. Critically interrogate your own assumptions about gender inherited from a cis-sexist society.
Respect pronouns. Always.
Call out transphobia. Raises trans voices. Support us. Invite us into spaces.
Listen to us e.g. if the community is telling you Ru Paul is transphobic, then please believe Ru Paul is transphobic.
Be affirming. But treat us like normal people. You don’t have to be excessively effusive in your allyship to be a good ally – often we don’t want the pity and fanfare – we don’t think of ourselves as inspiring, brave people. We are human like everyone else, with the same basic needs just trying to find meaning in an absurd world.
More tips for being a good ally to trans people.